AND FOR ETERNITY
Olive Woolley Burt
SYNOPSIS: Della Marriott, trying to find a way to make her friends think that she is the one who has broken her engagement to Hugh Temple, who has asked to be released so that he can marry an Australian girl, shows an interest in Alec Windsor, a marine on furlough in the town. But when Alec asks Delsa to marry him, she remembers that he thinks of marriage as for time only, while to her it means a contract for time and for eternity. Jeff Holden, the father of two children, has told Delsa he loves her, but she thinks he is merely lonely for his dead wife.
When Delsa awoke the next morning, her purpose had crystallized. Without knowing just how she had arrived at her decision, she nevertheless was absolutely sure of what she had to do.
It had happened, she knew, while she sat there on the “thinking boulder” beside Alec. Perhaps it was thinking of time and eternity. She loved Hugh; she thought she had always loved him and always would love him – but her understanding of that love had suddenly deepened. She knew now that it wasn’t Hugh that she wanted “for time and eternity” – as her husband.
“I’ve grown up!” she thought to herself, smiling a little wistfully in remembrance of the girl who had ridden off yesterday morning – the girl who was going to cling to her childhood sweetheart in spite of everything.
But when her ringless hand reached for the hairbrush and she realized what it meant and what she would have to do today, she hesitated. But only for a moment.
Shaking herself as she might shake a reluctant child, she thought, Be adult, Delsa! If you are ever going to do it, do it now – make a clean, sharp break and have it over with.
Later she added softly, “Hugh will come back here with his wife and you can have his friendship, sweet and whole, if you do the right thing now. And if you never find the man with whom you wish to live forever and ever and ever – why, that is just your bad luck, Delsa.”
She dressed carefully, wanting to look her best today, not wanting anyone to feel sorry for her or to think she was unhappy.
She went blithely down the stairs, finding that she was not having to act – that she really felt happiness through her whole body since she had come to her decision.
She was reaching for the cream when her mother noticed her bare finger.
“Delsa!” she cried, “your ring! You’ll lose it if you keep taking it off and laying it around.”
Delsa smiled at her mother.
I’ve taken it off for good, Mother,” she said quietly. “I am not going to put it on again.”
Her mother looked at her with stricken eyes.
“Delsa, you haven’t let a passing fancy – ”
Delsa felt her father regarding her, and she turned her eyes to him.
“It is not like you to jest about such things, daughter,” he said, and a worried question was behind his words.
“I’m not jesting. I’ve thought it all out. Listen, Mother, Dad. When Hugh wrote to me last, he asked me to release him from his promise. He wants to marry an Australian girl he’s met and fallen in love with. I thought at first I couldn’t –”
Her mother rose quickly and came around the table to her.
“Darling!” she said. “I felt something was wrong. Why didn’t you tell me? Hugh can’t be serious! Oh, we’ll work this out!”
Delsa smiled reassuringly.
“I’ve already worked it out, Mother,” she said. “As I said, at first I thought I couldn’t bear to give Hugh up. I was thinking, I know, more of what everyone would say than I was of my own loss. But now I see that Hugh is right to ask for his freedom if he wants it.”
“But how can he want it?” her father asked indignantly. “After all these years, after all we’ve done for him. He must have gone crazy down there!”
“He was lonely, no doubt,” Delsa defended, “and he needed someone right there, someone real that he could touch and love. But there’s more to it than that, Dad. Hugh was just a boy when he went away – I was just a girl. He’s grown up since he left, and now that he’s a man, he’s chosen someone else.”
“Delsa, how can you defend him?” her mother asked. “As if you couldn’t make a grown man a wife. You’ve grown up, too. You’d be a suitable mate –”
“Yes,” Delsa said thoughtfully, “I’ve grown up, too. And that’s why I see Hugh’s point of view.”
She paused. It was proving to be difficult, all right, but not in the way she had thought. They just couldn’t understand, that was all. And they must understand; they must still love Hugh.
She tried, “You must think of Hugh as a man, Dad – a man far away from Utah and from the things he has always known and the things he has always planned. As an independent adult he has found that the things he wanted as a boy are not the things he wants right now. We must understand that, and grant Hugh the right to do as he sees fit.”
“Not when it means throwing you over after he has asked you to marry him!” her father cried indignantly. “Not if it means breaking your heart, leaving you to be a spinster –”
“My heart is not broken, Father, and if I am a spinster, it will be my fault, not Hugh’s.”
Her mother shook her head sadly.
“You don’t realize what you are saying, what you are doing when you release Hugh, Delsa. Think it over; let’s talk it over some more before you do anything. His mother can’t know –”
“Not yet. Hugh said for me to break the news any way I wished. I am going to tell Aunt Martha today – and anyone else who cares to know about it, or has a right to know,” she added.
They looked at her sadly, at a loss what to do when she seemed so calm, so decisive. To them she was still their little girl, capable of being hurt, and they wanted fiercely to protect her. But they loved Hugh, too, beyond the ordinary love for a neighbor’s child who has grown up almost in the family.
Delsa came around the table, put an arm around each of her parents, and bent and kissed them gently.
“It’s all right, dears,” she whispered. “You’ll see! I must run now, or I’ll be late for Sunday School.”
As she came to the corner of the street on which the church house stood she met Jeff Holden, carrying Trudy and with Davy running like a young colt at his side.
When Davy saw Delsa he let out a whoop and ran toward her, his chubby arms outstretched. He flung himself against her knees, crying “Delsa! Delsa!”
Trudy held out her baby arms and said, “Della!”
They all laughed, but Delsa noticed at once that Jeff’s laugh was not as clear and gay as it usually was. He’s tired, she thought, and reproached herself for not having gone over the day before to help him with the children.
Delsa took one of Davy’s hands and they started down the street together.
Suddenly Delsa was aware that Jeff’s eyes were on her hand – the hand that held Davy’s, and she remembered that Hugh’s ring was no longer there. She looked straight at Jeff.
“Hugh has asked me to release him from our engagement, Jeff,” she said quietly.
Jeff did not answer at once, and Delsa saw a shadow cross his clear gray eyes. Then he turned his eyes away and walked on, in silence.
“What’s the matter?” Delsa asked, and as Jeff did not answer she flushed and said uncomfortably, “Oh, Jeff! if you’re being bothered about that nonsense you were saying the other night – forget it! I knew it didn’t mean anything – it was the moonlight and the music and all – ”
Jeff’s voice was distant as he said, making no acknowledgment of Delsa’s words. “Did you have a nice ride yesterday?”
For a moment Delsa was stunned with surprise and shock that Jeff, whom she had considered one of her best friends, paid no attention to an announcement fraught with so much importance to her.
She stammered, “Ride? What do you mean, Jeff?”
The bitterness in his voice could not be mistaken. “I saw you and Windsor ride off into the canyon and I surmised you were trying to help him enjoy his furlough – but I didn’t think it would lead to the discarding of Hugh’s ring and all the fine loyalty you’ve made such a show of!”
His meaning struck her like a blow and she was furious. She dropped Davy’s hand and walked ahead so swiftly that the child stumbled after her crying, “Delsa, wait for Davy!” But she didn’t stop. Then she heard Jeff say sharply, “Come back, David. Come here!” and she felt tears sting the edge of her eyelids at the hurt in his voice.
Delsa didn’t give herself time to think. She went straight to her place with her class and from that moment on she was busy. But as she followed the preliminary service, as she went with her class into their own room and directed the lesson, the ghost of a thought was moving shapeless and inarticulate through her heart.
She was eager for the service to be over. She wanted to go home, to get out Blue Star and ride, ride, ride, until she had thought this thing through.
But it wasn’t to be that easy. Delsa slipped out of the church and cut through the lot, planning to get home unseen by any of her friends, for she had no heart now to tell her news to any others. But there, as if he had read her plans, Alec stood leaning against a poplar tree, waiting for her. He came forward eagerly.
“I figured you’d be hurrying home after Sunday School,” he grinned, “and would take this short cut.”
Delsa smiled in spite of herself. He was so young, so impatient.
“You figured – with Millie’s help I’ll bet!” she said teasingly.
Alec laughed. “Nope! I figured it all alone. You were helping your ma do the washing, so I thought you’d probably help her get Sunday dinner.”
“And you’d probably get invited to help Dad eat it!”
He took her arm and they walked along together.
In a way, Delsa thought, it was lucky that Alec was there waiting – that he was going home with her. It kept her from thinking of what Jeff had said. If she got time to think of that, she would find out, doubtless, what the rest of the town would say once they heard. And again her old fear of being pitied, of being looked at with commiseration stirred.
It would be better to marry Alec, right now, and tell them all afterward. But she was being childish again – she was going back to the immature deceit of the past days – the deceit she had cast off up there on the boulder.
She would take this respite that Alec offered and enjoy it – so she laughed with him and joked with him, and when he caught her paying scant attention and chided her, she laughed lightly and volunteered no excuse.
She saw her mother’s worried frown when she brought Alec in to dinner, and went over and put her arms about her.
“I’ve brought Alec home to dinner, Mother,” she said quietly. “He’ll be a good tonic for all of us.”
Her father gave her a sharp look as if to say, “You can put off reckoning for a time, my dear, but it will come.”
The meal, in spite of this, was gay with banter and laughter. Delsa was sure that Alec had noticed that she had not put Hugh’s ring on again and that he was taking this as a tacit acknowledgment of his own candidacy for the place Hugh had once held. But she wouldn’t let that worry her.
After dinner Hugh’s mother came in and Delsa was glad that Alec insisted that her mother sit with Mrs. Temple while he and Delsa did the dishes. Now Hugh’s mother would not notice her ringless finger for a while. Delsa shrank from telling her what Hugh had done, even though she knew this task must sooner or later be faced.
Now in the kitchen with Alec, she tried to forget all the unpleasant aspects of being jilted, and to concentrate only on the happier ones. She was free now to look at Alec with affection, even with love, if she chose. She was free to accept his kisses, if they were the kisses she wanted. She was free as she had never in all her life before been free, because always before Hugh had had first claim on her thoughts and her affection.
She was a little giddy with this new freedom and a little frantic with the worry she wouldn’t admit, so that she laughed too quickly and too often, and Alec saw that she was not calm and composed.
He put his arms around her.
“The symbol of the pledge is gone, Delsa, darling! darling!” he whispered. “What does that mean, dearest? What does it mean?
She felt his strong, young heart beating against her cheek. She thought, I can let him believe I am in love with him – maybe I am! I can let him think that is why I took off Hugh’s ring!
She said softly, “Oh, Alec, it doesn’t mean anything except that Hugh has asked me to take it off.”
Alec drew back from her. he took her shoulders in his hands and turned her towards the light so that he could look into her face.
“Do you mean you are really free, Delsa? But how? When?” He was happy, incredulous.
“A long time ago,” Delsa said warily. “A long time ago.”
“But yesterday you said – ”
“I said that the ring was the symbol of a pledge. When you suggested taking it off, throwing it away, I saw suddenly that that was all I had to do.”
“But why hadn’t you done that before, if he asked you so long ago?”
“Oh, it was really only a few days ago,” Delsa said softly, smiling at the thought of how she had changed since that evening. “But I was afraid, Alec! I was afraid to take it off! I was afraid of what everyone would say and think. I was afraid of being left alone.”
“Well, you don’t need to be afraid of that any longer!” he cried and had her in his arms again.
Delsa felt like weeping. she felt as if she were his mother, and he was asking her to assure him of her love and she couldn’t, and she felt that she was betraying him. She put her hands against his shoulders.
“No, Alec, no!” she cried softly.
She withdrew from the circle of his arms and stood leaning against the table, looking at him with compassion. He was so young, so alone, so defenseless against his emotions. Hugh would have been just like this – even with all the growing up the war would have given him. they were only boys! Her throat ached, and she thought, I am no older than Alec, really! it must be that my heart has grown old suddenly!
Alec stood looking at her, leaning toward her in that slanting, eager way of his, his brown eyes troubled at her mood.
She stepped forward and put her hands on his arm and raised her eyes to his face.
“Don’t be troubled, Alec!” she begged. “I don’t know which way I’m going yet. all I want is happiness for you and for Hugh and for all this troubled, crazy, reeling world. But I don’t know which way happiness lies – for anyone – just now.”
She felt the tears heavy on her lashes, and suddenly she was the little one, wanting to lay her head against him and weep as only a child can weep.
Alec put his arms about her and held her gently, tenderly.
“There, little girl!” he whispered against her hair. “I’m clumsy and thoughtless, rushing you like this. Forgive me. I just get panicky when I think how little time there is. But dry your eyes and forget it! We’ll go slow, sweetheart. We’ll take it easy. Don’t cry, kid!”
She felt a crazy desire to laugh at that, but she saw that he was in desperate earnest – he was the strong one, the adult one, the protector – and she shook her head, wondering that he could be so naive.
She turned back to the neglected dishes, and as she dipped her hands into the suds she felt a little chill of fear and shuddered. Maybe my heart is really dead! she thought, and began to wash plates vigorously to hide her fright.